Ursula Burns makes a lasting impression as Xerox CEO
Orlando, Fla. – HUNDREDS of Xerox sales reps have flown here from around the country for an annual pump-up-the-troops meeting. The main attraction during a marathon day is a face both familiar and new: Ursula Burns. She’s an old friend to many of them, and there are plenty of hugs to go around for the people she’s grown up with during her 30 years at the company.
But there is also a new distance, a new curiosity about what she will do, given that she is no longer just Ursula.
She is Ursula M. Burns, the C.E.O. And even though she became chief executive in July, taking the baton from Anne M. Mulcahy, she has been keeping a low profile, spending months working on the details of a huge Xerox bet, the $6.4 billion acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services, an outsourcing company.
So her speeches and drop-ins on breakout sessions here are a mix of state-of-the-union messages and coming-out parties. At a meeting with some high-potential managers, she’s asked about the legacy she hopes to leave at Xerox. “It’s all about growth,” she says. “It’s all about getting bigger.”
Asked what has surprised her about her new job, she mentions the flood of attention when she was promoted. Her elevation marked two milestones: the first time an African-American woman was named C.E.O. of a major American corporation, and the first time a woman succeeded another woman in the top job at a company of this size. She tells the group that she briefly enjoyed the spotlight but grew to like it significantly less.
“The accolades that I get for doing absolutely nothing are amazing – I’ve been named to every list, literally, since I became the C.E.O.,” Ms. Burns says. Apart from working on the Affiliated Computer acquisition, she asks, “What have I done? In the first 30 days, I was named to a list of the most impressive XYZ. The accolades are good for five minutes, but then it takes kind of a shine off the real story. The real story is not Ursula Burns. I just happen to be the person standing up at this point representing Xerox.”
It’s a fair point, and one that might be true at many other big corporations, where the mission is set and the C.E.O. is more of a caretaker.
BY all accounts, Ms. Burns, who is 51, has never been shy about speaking her mind. It’s how she wound up working alongside Xerox’s top leaders at an early age.
She studied mechanical engineering both in college and in graduate school and joined Xerox as a summer intern in 1980. Through her 20s, she worked in various roles in product development and planning.
In 1989, she was invited to a work-life discussion. Diversity initiatives came up, and somebody asked whether such initiatives lowered hiring standards. Wayland Hicks, a senior Xerox executive running the meeting, patiently explained that that was not true.
“I was stunned,” Ms. Burns recalls. “I actually told him, ‘I was surprised that you gave this assertion any credence.’ ” After the meeting, she revisited the issue with Mr. Hicks, and a few weeks later he asked her to meet with him in his office. She figured that she was about to be reprimanded or fired.
Instead, Mr. Hicks told her she had been right to be concerned but also wrong for handling it so forcefully. Then he told her he wanted to meet regularly with her.
“She was enormously curious,” Mr. Hicks remembers. “She wanted to know why we were doing some things at the time, and she was always prepared in a way that I thought was very refreshing.”
He offered her a job as his executive assistant. It was January 1990, she was 31, and the offer felt like a dead-end. “Why would I ever want to do that?” she answered, assuming that the title meant secretary. The job was much more, of course. She would travel with Mr. Hicks, sit in on important meetings, help get things done.
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